I was headed down a mountain, navigating a steep slope of bedrock, when my dog, Juno, yanked on her leash. My leading foot landed on a slippery pile of dead leaves, and down I went.
It was an elegant tumble. (No one was around to witness it, so no one can dispute my claim.) My right knee landed on the rock, along with the palm of my left hand. I slid, ripping a hole in my brand new hiking pants — and my skin underneath, unfortunately. But all in all, I was just fine.
“You’ve got to be more careful,” I silently told myself as I clambered to my feet. “Pay attention to each step.”
The experience got me thinking. I’ve learned — and continue to learn — a lot of hiking lessons the hard way. Anyone who spends time on trails does. But maybe I could help you, dear reader, from avoiding just a few mistakes.
My little fall on Tunk Mountain a few days ago was no big deal, but it did serve as a wakeup call for me to stay focused on my footing. Maine trails are filled with thick tree roots and jagged rocks, which makes tripping easy. And in the fall, a fresh layer of papery leaves makes the terrain even more challenging to navigate. A dusting of snow does the same thing — and it often conceals ice, too.
Practice does help. Over the years, my hiking technique has improved. I keep a fairly wide stance and never cross my legs while stepping (a sure way to lose my balance). I think I’ve naturally learned what rocks and roots will provide sufficient footing — though I’m not always right.
While hiking, someone once said to me: “If it looks slippery, it is slippery. If it doesn’t look slippery, it might still be slippery.” I can’t remember who that person was (please reach out to me if you’re reading this). But the words stuck with me. They seem especially appropriate in Maine, where frequent rain turns bog bridges and slopes of bedrock into Slip ’N Slides.
I tend to fall most often when I’m descending mountains rather than climbing up. I think a lot of factors play into that: tired legs, a faster pace, downhill momentum plus gravity. And I don’t think I’m the only one. I’ve witnessed a few hiking buddies fall on their butt, and it always seems to be while heading downhill.
Hiking poles and walking sticks are helpful for maintaining balance. I always seem to have my hands full with my dog leash and camera, but I do suggest hiking poles to anyone who has the free hands. When you use them, it’s sort of like having four legs rather than two.
Investing in good footwear is also key. Everyone has their own preferences in that department. Some people even hike barefoot. But I find a sturdy boot with good traction is the best option for hiking in Maine.
I have misbehaving ankles. In fact, my husband sometimes calls me “tippy ankles” as he hikes behind me. They bend sideways at any opportunity. So I don’t give them the opportunity. I almost always wear high-topped boots with a stiff sole. As a result, I don’t twist my ankles anymore.
The tread of your boots is also important. I always select boots that have distinct heels that are defined by a 90-degree angle. That design allows the heel to catch on roots and rocks if your foot starts to slide downhill.
Now I’m going to sound preachy here, but even if you’re an experienced, cautious hiker, accidents happen. That’s why it’s important to prepare for any potential fall by carrying survival gear, including first aid. Hiking with a companion boosts your safety. Plus, you should always tell someone at home where you’re hiking and when you plan to return. That way, if you do break a leg, someone will know when and where to search.
No one ever means to fall down. In fact, it can be quite embarrassing.
There have been times when the beauty of the natural world has distracted me enough that I stumble and fall. For example, when I go birding, if I’m looking into the trees and attempting to walk over uneven ground, it rarely ends well.
One time, on Old Speck Mountain in western Maine, I was so mesmerized by a view that I tripped over a tree root and fell flat on my face on a rock ledge. Again, I was fine, if a little scraped up and shaken.
So my advice is: Slow down. Stop hiking if you’re observing wildlife or enjoying a view. Stop hiking if you’re using your camera, binoculars or phone.
I was looking at my camera when I slipped off a snowy footbridge in February and crashed through a thin layer of ice to sit waist-deep in a freezing brook. Fortunately it wasn’t a very deep body of water, but I had to hike back to the trailhead to change my clothes. The water froze instantly in little beads, all over my pants, as soon as I stood back up. That’s how cold it was. The experience also reminded me to carry extra clothes in my pack.
Come to think of it, that was on Tunk Mountain, too. Next time I hike that mountain, my goal will be to stay on my feet.